Wild County Music: Shel Silverstein
You may not know Shel Silverstein.
mean, I'm sure you think you do. Most of us a grew up knowing a bit about Uncle Shelby: Prolific penner and inker of children's verses and of "The Giving Tree." You may even have stumbled across his "Uncle Shelby's ABZ" book in your grade school library, which seems, at first, like another of his collections of light comic poetry for children, until you read it and realize that it's just pretending to be a children's book. You might catch on about the moment Shel Silverstein asks you to empty your parent's wallets and mail him the money.
Hell, you may even know that he penned "A Boy Named Sue," which was a hit for Johnny Cash, and "The Cover of the Rolling Stone" for Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show, and “The Unicorn Song,” which, for some reason, has become a standard for Irish folk bands. But it's not terrifically surprising that the guy who wrote "Jimmy Jet and His Teevee Set," in which a boob tube-obsessed child starts to transform into the object of his attention, would also be behind these pop favorites.
Perhaps you've seen photos of Uncle Shelby. He was a lean, bearded man with a shaved head and the eyes and hawk-like nose of a villain from a Sinbad movie. Perhaps you thought "This is him?" Because the man in the photo doesn't look like somebody who would write poems to amuse children. The man in the photo looks, instead, like somebody who might kidnap a child in a book by Robert Louis Stephenson.
And then you stumble across a song like "Polly in a Porny" off a 1973 album, in which Uncle Shelby complains that his girlfriend does things in movies that she won't do with him. Who the hell is this?
Well, this is the Shel Silverstein you may not know.
This is the Silverstein who drew cartoons for Playboy, and actually lived at the Playboy Mansion, starting in 1956 and continuing, on and off, for decades (including, apparently, for almost the entirety of the 1970s.)
And this Shel Silvestein wrote songs for adults, and released a surprising number of records — somewhere around 11. These range from amusing to astonishing, starting with his Dixieland-inspired "Hairy Jazz" from 1959 and reaching their apogee in a pair of breathtaking albums, "Freakin' at the Freaker's Ball" from 1969-1972 and "The Great Conch Robbery" from 1980, bookending his Playboy decade with a pair of albums where he returns, again and again, to two themes: sex and drugs. Sample song titles from the albums: "I Got Stoned And Missed It," "Masochistic Baby," "Don't Give a Dose to the One You Love Most, "Quaaludes Again," and the aforementioned "Polly in a Porny."
He half sings, half speaks these musical tales of decadence, sometimes gasping his way through gales of laughter, sometimes backed by Dr. Hook and the Medicine Band, playing groovy, acid-tinged country rock that calls to mind most particularly Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem from the Muppet Show, but, you know, not kid-friendly.
His songs all display the sort of doggerel genius he brought to his better-known poetry, and the same playful wit, although you're not likely to find a line like "The masturbators are baiting their masters" in "Where the Sidewalk Ends," and sometimes his gleeful cackling on the albums sounds genuinely demonic, like Silverstein was, in fact, some sort of giggling imp.
His magnum opus is to be found an another album, however, titled "Songs and Stories" from 1978; the song is called "The Smoke-Off," and details an epic battle between a world-class marijuana smoker named Pearly Sweetcake and a beatnik named The Calistoga Kid, who claims a talent for rolling joints.
What follows is a stoner's version of one of those extended tall tales that folks used to tell in frontier, spoken over a bouncy cowboy guitar. Silverstein's tale takes an obsessive interest in exaggerated details, included a seemingly endless list of types of reefer, including:
Just tops and buds of the rarest flowers not one stem branch or seed
Maui Wowie Panama Red and Acapulco Gold
Kif from East Afghanistan and rare Alaskan Cold
Sticks from Thailand Ganja from the Islands and Bangkok's Bloomin' Best
And some of that wet imported shit that capsized off Key West
Oaxacan tops and Kenya Bhang and Riviera Fleurs
And that rare Manhattan Silver that grows down in the New York sewers
Silverstein's tale lasts six and a half minutes and spans several years, culminating in a lunatic climax that costs the life of one of the two contestant. One imagines Silverstein sitting in the grotto of the Playboy mansion in the middle of the 1970s, surrounded by topless naifs, strumming his guitar by the side of the pool and telling this story as a joint is passed, and his telling grows longer and his story madder, and a newcomer listens in with disbelief.
Who is that, the newcomer asks.
Shel Silverstein, one of the topless girls answers.
The child's author? the newcomer asks, astounded, and the girls respond with chorus of giggles.
The children's author? one retorts. Man, you don't know him. You don't know him at all.